There’s an old misconception that drug abuse occurs because users are simply looking for that euphoric feeling and an addiction sticks around due to a lack of willpower. Despite a plethora of research on brain chemistry that proves this notion false, it’s still a common view in society.
While a desire to get high can surely be the starting point of a drug abuse habit, no one develops an addiction on purpose. A dependency on substances, especially opioids, progresses as the structure and the function of the brain are changed. Over time, continued drug use will inevitably result in a substance use disorder or addiction.
Here, we’ll explore how opioids “re-wire” the brain, the effects of this altered neurological chemistry and why opioids are so highly addictive.
The research that changed the game
Dr. Solomon Snyder was among the first scientists to research and understand the function of neurotransmitters in brain activity. Neurotransmitters are responsible for feelings of pain and pleasure. Even if you haven’t heard the word “neurotransmitter,” it’s likely you’ve heard of serotonin, dopamine and adrenaline. These are all chemicals that send messages through the brain, changing the way we think, feel and act.
Dr. Snyder’s research out of John Hopkins University differentiated neurotransmitters and their effects, and also lead to the discovery of opioid receptors in the brain. This opened a wide field of research around opioids and their addictive properties that continues to be studied today. While we don’t know the full extent of the way in which these chemicals interact and influence our behavior, it’s clear that addictions are reinforced on a molecular level.
How opioids work
While combing through decades worth of research is highly informative, here’s a summary of the brain science behind opioids. When we partake in pleasurable activities (like sex or eating chocolate cake, for example) our bodies release naturally occurring neurotransmitters that bind to opioid receptors in the brain. When these “feel-good chemicals” bind to receptors in the brain, we experience pleasure.
When naturally occurring opioids are released in the brain, our mood is elevated and we have a dulled perception of pain. Participating in pleasurable activities starts a cycle because our memory associates those actions with the chemicals they produce. These behaviors are naturally reinforcing, then.
Opioids work in the same way, only they artificially signal our brain to feel pleasure. Opioids such as heroin, fentanyl and morphine produce pleasurable effects but in a much more intense way that organically occurring opioids. These drugs, whether prescription or recreational, can quickly devolve into a full-fledge addiction without a person realizing how the brain is being changed.
This is your brain on opioids
When you consume opioids, the opioid receptors in your brain are activated. The drugs travel from the blood to the brain, where the effects start to take place. The more of a substance is taken, the more the brain is flooded with pleasurable feelings. Over time, this creates a tolerance, meaning more and more of a drug is needed to experience the same effects as the body builds up resilience.
While a high becomes increasingly hard to achieve, it’s still extremely pleasurable. This “rush” causes pain relief and euphoria at much more intense levels than can be naturally produced, often driving people back to using despite disastrously negative consequences.
The hallmark of an addiction is an inability to stop using in the face of severe consequences. Sadly, breaking an addiction is as much a neurological task as it is a mental one. The process of chemicals binding to opioid receptors becomes like a carved pathway in the brain. Each use of a drug digs the trench a little deeper, until it feels impossible to climb out of.
This is often called a dependency. When a person feels like drugs are necessary in order to feel normal, professional treatment is critical. Addiction has taken hold, and using drugs is no longer voluntary.
Long-term Effects on the Brain from Opioid Drugs
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, long-term use of opioids causes changes to the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal lobe of the brain. These areas of the brain affect nearly every aspect of life, from social interactions to the way we process and store memories.
Long-term opioid use impacts the brain significantly. Here are some of the ways the brain is altered when an opioid addiction is present.
- Poor regulation of one’s behaviors;
- Impaired emotional processes;
- Memory impairment;
- Diminished flexibility regarding tasks;
- Flawed reasoning skills;
- Poor problem-solving skills;
- Decreased ability to plan;
- Impaired decision-making skills;
- Decreased ability to imagine future events and interactions.
Opioid use can result in serious consequences in every area of daily living. The sooner you start treatment for an a substance use disorder, the easier it will be to reverse these effects and get back control over your life.
Opioid Addiction Recovery
Opioid addiction is a challenging dependency to break free from, even if you’re able to catch it in the early stages. The changes to the brain are significant, but they only build over time, which makes today the best day to start working for recovery.
Recovery from opioid addiction is possible. Rehab After Work can get you on the path to sobriety and walk with you on your journey to reclaim your life. While the path will be rough, a variety of program options and flexible scheduling can help you balance your family and work life with treatment. See how Rehab After Work can help you achieve long term success by calling today.